Sikkim (Part III): The will takes you where strength fails.

Snow capped mountain peaks make beautiful scenery and picturesque postcards. But how many of us do we really think about what it is like setting foot in such places? Lovely no doubt, but it is not a place for just anybody and sometimes not even for experienced mountaineers, if conditions do not favour him. I learnt it the hard way, when my body failed to acclimatize to the high altitude conditions. The ‘High Altitude Sickness’ hit me like a jack hammer from nowhere. Three days of the sickness sucked the life out of me like I have never experienced before in my life.

 The ‘High Altitude sickness’, also known as ‘The Acute Mountain Sickness’, is a pathological condition caused by the failure of the human body to acclimatize to the high altitude conditions such as the low atmospheric pressure, low oxygen level etc. “It is hard to say who will be affected by altitude sickness, as there are no specific factors that correlate with a susceptibility to altitude sickness….It can progress to High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), which are potentially fatal”. (Wikipedia). Anybody, even those with the fittest or strongest physical constitution, can be affected by it if the body is not acclimatised properly to the high altitude conditions. Those living in the plains and used to the low altitude conditions are the ones more likely to suffer from it as their bodies are not attuned to the conditions. That is why it is very important that in mountaineering one must give ample time to the body to acclimatize to the conditions slowly. One can’t just walk up to a mountain peak like that :).

 Anyways the ‘HAS’ or ‘HAPE’ was the last thing on my mind when I joined the expedition. I never even thought it’d happen to me. But here I was, my head feeling like it has been weighed down by kilos and chopped up into thousand pieces, even a slight movement would send the world spinning in dizzying circles. Then there is a constant feeling as if an invisible hand is squeezing your brains inside the skull. Whatever you put down the throat comes up again as soon as it hits the stomach, even water. So you are not just starved of oxygen but of food and nutrients as well which is very essential. In a short time, the strength is knocked off you knees and you lay there like a crumpled mass of heap, unable to even help yourself to the loo. The only option for such a sickness is to bring down the person to a lower altitude level and wait for the body to acclimatize properly. So it was to be that we were brought down to Thangu, a small hamlet in North Sikkim which was the last human settlement below the Chopta Valley. After lying motionless for two days on the cold floors of an old shack along with two other climbers in the expedition team, our bodies slowly returned to normal. The head was now fine although the knees would buckle under when we tried to walk. We were starved. So we had meat arranged from the village and fed ourselves enough to bring back the strength. But one day’s meal wasn’t going to replenish the strength lost after starving for more than three days. My knees still felt wobbly and it would take a few more days to get back my strength. But the luxury of time was not ours anymore; we had very little time to catch up with the rest of the group. One team had already advanced from the BC (Base Camp) for the higher altitudes and we had to hurry to make it to the second team that would try for the summit. So we hit the road for BC and having rested a night there, we heaved our backpacks once again and moved on the following day to ABC (Advance Base Camp) and from there to Camp 1 the subsequent day. It was again a continuous climb with no more than one night’s rest in one camp. This time round my body held but was still weak from the last bout. At Camp I, which was located on the rocky banks of a small lake atop the mountains, I felt exhilarated on reaching there. The water was clear and blue as the sky, you could even see the pebbles in the bottom of the lake. I stood awhile by the banks watching the calm blue lake and feeling incredibly lucky to be one of the few humans to have actually set foot in this area. I felt blessed.

A lake on top of the mountains, just before Camp 1.
Camp 1 : A Camp by the pristine blue lake where only a few men have set foot.
A frozen pond a little further from Camp 1.
Walking on water: A frozen pond ahead of Camp 1 and just before the base of Mt. Khangchenyao.
Mt. Khangchengyao (6889 m)

When we reached Camp I, one team had already departed for Camp II (established on the Col seen on the left side of the picture above). Soon enough we broke into jubilation when news reached us that the first team has conquered the virgin peak. It was a beautiful day and the weather had held. The blessings of Khangchengyao were with us. Encouraged by the success, the second team was readying itself to go for the summit climb. But there were only four members out of the six men team that was planned. Rest of the members of the expedition thought it wise to return from ABC to Base camp after one member (a mountaineering training instructor himself) had a bad slip from the 80 degree ice wall of the mountain face and had a tearful story to tell about his lucky survival. The three of us faced the difficult question of whether we were fit enough to attempt the formidable ice wall. One decided he wasn’t and turned back from Camp I which left the two of us staring up the mountain with a lot of uncertainty.

Mt.Khangchenyao which stands 6889 meters (22602 ft) is said to be the 4th highest peak in Sikkim and the 10th highest in India. In this part of the Himalayan region, the natives identify most of the mountains, especially the high peaks, as deities and even gives them a gender, male or female, according to local beliefs. The mountains are held with high regard which we from the valley areas tend to take for granted. They are worshipped and due obeisance is accorded to them before any attempt is made to set foot on them. Mt.Khangchengyao is one such mountain which is deeply respected and feared by the locals. They identify it as a male mountain and local legends has it that it gets angry when a women sets foot near it. Coincidence is that on two occasions, when members of the fairer sex present in the expedition have gone as little as near the base of the mountain, the weather conditions at the top began to worsen. Mere coincidence of course but we were not taking any chances annoying the mighty Khangchenyao.

Mt.Khangchengyao had a unique shape. Of course all mountains are shaped uniquely but this one had a particularly striking difference. It is a dome-shaped mountain and really didn’t have a pointed peak as most mountains do. Instead it has a more or less rounded top which tapers down it sides in a steep 75 to 80 degree wall which was the most challenging part of the climb. A slip from there would only take you straight up…….to heaven of course, or hell depending on who has slipped.

Discarding all thoughts and imaginations that was hammering my brain, I slipped my feet into my Coflex snow boots which itself would weigh more than two Kilos a pair. Coupled with the gear and other stuff in your backpack, one would be hauling up that formidable ice wall an easy extra 25-30 Kilos besides the weight of one’s body . I hauled the backpack onto my back feeling a little weak in the knees and gingerly stepped out on the snow. It was early morning dawn and we had to climb before the sun melts the ice on the mountain face. It would be a slippery hell when that happens. The snow under my feet was soft but wasn’t deep. It was an easy walk towards the base of the mountain, relatively speaking that is because walking in the snow is never easy of course.

Trudging along to the base of Mt. Khangchenyao.

As I stood at the base of the mountain and looked up at the smugly sitting titanic boulder of rock covered in a blanket of ice and snow, trepidation gripped me. Will I be able to hold on to that almost vertical wall. Will I be able to make it to the top? I could almost feel the rush of adrenalin. I clipped my Jhummer on to the rope, closed my eyes tight one last time, prayed briefly to God to keep me safe, and screaming out loud inside my brain “Nongmada pokpa machana nini shiba hounade” I lifted my ice-axe with my right hand and struck out high above. It rebounded off the ice like chipping rock. One bloody hell of an ice wall, I thought to myself. Taking a deep breath I struck a second time, the ice axe held this time. Tugging a little and after  making sure it holds, I struck my left foot with the front tip of the crampons on my boots into the ice wall as high as I can lift it. When it held, I took a light leap off my right foot, pushing myself up a foot or two and struck the crampons on my right foot into the wall firmly, a step higher than the left. After making sure that the two feet held firmly, I eased the Jhummer up the rope and when it held firmly on the rope, I released my ice axe and aimed a little higher. I remembered my mountaineering lessons well. It is what we call ‘Three point climbing”, you make sure that you are always anchored on three points leaving only one free to reach further. Step by step, slowly and slowly I inched forward.

Icy slopes of Mt. Khangchenyao, slippery as hell. (The shot is taken from close to the wall and tilted upwards which makes the mountain face appear more or less flat. It is actually inclined 75-80 degrees). The two climbers are traversing sideways to go round an overhang above.
Climbing a 80 degree ice wall on the way to Camp II in Mt. Khangchenyao, Sikkim. The shot cost me my gloves which fell down while taking the shot.

Although my failing strength was my weak point, a good climbing technique was what helped me on that wall. Many a times my fellow climber in the front slipped sending me a cascade of snow and ice. He would dangle on the rope, swinging side to side trying to get a foothold back onto the wall and in the effort use up all the energy. The most difficult part of the climb was when we had to traverse diagonally to go round an overhang on the wall. It was a frightening experience to watch my fellow climber make it across that difficult patch. When my turn came I took a deep breath and struck my ice axe diagonally side ways. I could not afford a slip. I needed to use my energy conservatively, depleted as it is already. Slowly, tentatively and steadily, I advanced making sure I do not falter on the ‘three points’ principle. We made it safely across the overhang and started easing straight up the wall, much more comfortably now than deflecting sideways.

The sun was high up in the sky now. We have been climbing for quite sometime now. My feet were hurting badly on account of the awkward pressure on the toes and ankle. I had long run out of my last reserves of energy and was hanging on to the cliff on sheer will. The knuckles of my right hand were red and sore from hitting the ice chips coming off the wall when I strike it with the ice axe. Sometimes my knuckles would hit the wall but it didn’t pain so much as it was almost numb. Of all the stupid things to happen, I had lost my glove while trying to take a picture I could not resist. The person climbing in front of me was taking a breather and he had come directly between me and the sun, blocking the sun from my view. He was hanging there precariously, silhouetted against the bright sunlight. I could not resist the artistic urge in me, if you can call it that. Many would term it sheer stupidity I am sure. Anchoring myself safely, I reached for the camera in my waist pouch which I had forgotten for quite a while. When I brought up my camera to take the shot, the sun had moved by then. I cautiously stepped sideways to re-establish the position again when the glove, which I had tucked under my armpits after taking it off my right hand to take the shot with the camera, slipped and fell. Helplessly I watched it shrink rapidly as it descended in the empty space below and soon disappeared out of sight. I heard the person way below me yell out the choicest cuss words that was there in his lexicon. I quietly cussed myself as well. It was the last straw. But the picture I had to take and take I did (seen above).

Having no other alternative, I took off my scarf and wound it around the fist clenching the ice axe so that it was protected to the best possible. Then I resumed my climb. Coming back to the precarious position I was in, I started questioning the rationale of my hanging there on the cliff on a slender thread while I could have been sitting comfortably in my bedroom watching TV, eating popcorn or munching on some ‘chikki’ or whatever there was to eat, doing the most mundane things but safe. Strange choices we make! Concentrate! Something in the back of my mind screamed. It wasn’t the time to drift away and drifting away I was. I shook myself to get out of the trance like state I was in. The sun was beating down making me sweat in the freezing cold. I looked up and saw the brow of the mountain some distance away. I had no idea how far Camp II was from there. So I set my target to get to that position first and think about the rest later.  This was something I have been doing for sometime now, setting one target and then the next, taking one at a time. That saves me the desperation in thinking about the whole distance we had to cover in one go. One step at a time often takes you to your destination sooner than you except. So having set my marker, I adjusted my backpack and concentrated on the task at hand. I did not have the strength or the energy in me anymore. But something in me screamed that I must go on. I must not give up. I had come here to climb and climb I must, there was no other way. I kept going. The will in me pushing me on and on. I couldn’t remember when I reached the brow but as I stepped up, I saw an outstretched hand reaching out towards me and I grabbed it pulling myself up. A huge sense of relief and jubilation washed over me as I stood there catching my breath and looking straight at the welcoming sight of the three small tents nestled precariously on the slope. I had reached Camp II! I had actually made it across the petrifying ice wall, the most difficult part of the climb !

Camp II , the last camp before the summit climb.
Camp II, Camping precariously on the slopes of Mt. Khangchenyao.
Posing for posterity with some of the members who summited the peak.  

The first thing I did on reaching Camp II was rush to the Kitchen tent and quickly heat up some water. Quickly was like an hour in just thawing the snow. It takes about two hours to boil an egg in that freezing cold ! I dipped the frozen fingers of my right hand into the hot water and kept it there for as long as the water stayed hot. Slowly my fingers tips, which had gone totally numb and had started to turn bluish due to frost bite, started to regain some sensation. It felt heavenly. Meantime I also rustled up some hot soup and put chunks of canned meat into it. All of us went at the soup like as if we have been starving for a whole month. Sadly it was all to come out again the next day as our bodies could not digest it, perhaps because of the cold.

At dawn the next day, we got ourselves ready to go for the final assault. There were only five of us now. The one who was climbing ahead of me in the previous day’s climb (one among the three of us sent down to Thangu) opted out of the summit climb. He was completely wasted. One by one we set off. We were making good progress when up ahead I saw one of my fellow climbers kneeling on the ground. Steadily I headed towards the person who was down on his fours belching out whatever he has had the day before. I tried to assist him and in doing so I felt sick myself. I controlled the urge to throw up. Collecting ourselves up after a while, we started to push ahead again. The other three ahead of us had covered quite a distance by then separating us into two groups, the three of them ahead and two of us trailing behind (seen on photograph below). The  climb was now technically much easier than the previous day as it was now a gradual climb, except for the exertion due to the altitude which made breathing more difficult. I was climbing along steadily when I could no longer contain the urge and I doubled up on all fours emptying my stomach. After the ordeal was over, I felt a little lighter. When I stood up, my head was swimming a little and thought my eyes were clouding up when I could not see my fellow climber properly. But it wasn’t my sight, it was the fog. The sky was clear a while ago but some fog had started to build up out of nowhere. At this altitude the weather becomes very unpredictable. It could take a drastic turn in seconds.I scanned for the three other climbers ahead of us but they were slowly disappearing in the worsening fog. They won’t be very far from the summit by now I thought.  As I stood there a while feeling a little indecisive to push ahead in the worsening fog, a strong wind started to blow. Thick clouds were blowing towards us. A storm was brewing ! I did not know when I made the decision but I was already rushing downwards. I had to hit the Camp before it got any worse. In a little while I heard the crackling of the radio. The three guys ahead of us were also behinds me though I still could not make them out in the fog. By that time visibility had gone down to almost 7 to 8 feet at the most. We yelled and screamed at each other and finally managed to make it back to Camp II safely.

The push to the summit, so near yet so far.
Barely had we got our breath back that the radio started to crackle again. Control Centre warned us of a serious storm brewing up in the horizon, something that was not going to ease up very soon. The weather forecasts received at the Base Camp predicted deteriorating weather conditions. The snow season was also approaching and once it starts it would be difficult for us to get out of the valley itself. Snow would choke all our routes. The radio crackled again and the voice spat out in quick terse words. Control centre ordered an immediate evacuation. Get out of there! We dint think twice. I dove inside our two-men tent, shook my sick partner out of his slumber and started packing as fast as we can, taking whatever we could carry with us. One of the members hurriedly tied up the rolled up tent onto my backpack which was already bursting from its sides. I quickly looped the fixed rope onto the carabiner on my harness and rappled down as fast as I could go in that storm. Moving cautiously but as fast as I could, I made progress surprisingly quite fast, perhaps fear had something to do with it. I must have made it almost three fourth of the distance on the ice wall when the wind suddenly changed direction. The fog had eased up quite a lot at this level but the wind had gotten much stronger, now blowing from the bottom of the mountain upwards. It packed quite a wallop blowing us almost off the mountain face. I quickly clipped the Jhummer to the fixed rope. The Jhummer is a wonderful piece of equipment, something my appreciation of which has had no bounds since this terrifying experience. I perhaps wouldn’t be writing this piece if not for the Jhummer 🙂 When clipped onto a hanging rope, it can only slid forward but immediately locks when it slips back thus arresting your fall. It is fixed to a harness around the hips and then clipped onto the rope for safety. It ensures that you do not plummet all the way down to the bottom should you slip on that wall or come loose off it. I still profusely thank the person who has invented that wonderful piece of equipment 🙂 So there I was hanging tightly, by the grace of the Jhummer, to the rope which was our only lifeline. I prayed hard that the rope doesn’t come loose. For without it…..well I need not elaborate. I clung on to the rope for dear life. Suddenly a strong draught blew both my feet off the anchor on the ice. I had never before seen or experienced such strong winds in my entire life. It was blowing up snow like chalk dust from the bottom of the mountain high up into the sky. The bottom is shaped like a cauldron and naturally the strong winds hitting it is blown up the mountain face taking everything along its path. I was plucked off the ice wall like one would blow off a tiny ant off a wall with a strong breath. I dangled from the rope swinging from side to side, arrested only by the Jhummer on the rope. Incredibly I felt quite light, like as if I was floating. Was it the wind? I remember this dream I use to have often when I was a small kid. I would jump off a cliff but the draught from below would keep me afloat like I was flying. It was an incredible experience like as if it was for real. Now it was happening for real ! I was lifted by the wind and actually floated on air albeit perhaps only for a few seconds, I can’t exactly remember how long. But it was incredible! The climber below me was waving his arms frantically screaming at the top of his lungs, like as if I could hear him in that storm ! Puzzled, I looked up and saw this green thing like a parachute over my head. Darn it! It wasn’t a parachute, it was the tent that was tied to my backpack ! The damn thing was looped over my neck and the ends were tied to both the sides of my back pack. The draught coming from below had blown off the mid portion which unfurled like a tiny parachute keeping me afloat. I hung on to the rope for dear life, swinging crazily. Carefully I manoeuvred myself to face the mountain and then struck with my Ice Axe on the wall. It held. Then I pulled myself in, stuck one foot and the other next into the wall. Anchoring myself safely, I eased myself out of my backpack slowly, gathered the tent and tied it as securely as I could. But I could not risk it again. The climber below me had already reached the bottom by then. So I clipped the bag onto the rope with a carabiner and let it slip all the way down. The wind had also eased up as suddenly as it came. Free of my baggage, I quickly hooked the carabiner on my harness onto the rope, removed my Jhummer, and descended rapidly facing downwards using what is called the ‘Flying Fox technique’, one of the quickest way to get down a mountain in which you literally run down the mountain face, arresting and maintaining your descent by the friction of the rope looped on the carabiner and around the waist. I wanted to get off that cliff as quickly as I could and not be blown off it again. Once my two feet landed on soft firm ground at the base of the mountain, I heaved a sigh of relief. I had never been so glad to be standing on my two feet on level ground. I bet you never ever realise how lovely that is. This was the craziest experience I have ever had in all my sojourn in the mountains, one I am not likely to forget ever.                    

It was only when I reached the Base camp that I was glad that we had taken off the mountain like rabbits on the run. The weather conditions at the top did not ease up the next day as well. Although sad at the thought that the weather had stolen the chance from us to summit the peak, it was comforting to know that we were back safe and sound.

Sikkim (Part II): Angels in the mountains.

A land in the clouds, lofty mountains, snow-capped peaks are pictures that come to mind immediately when we speak of Sikkim. But there is another picture lodged deep in my mind, a picture which could not be captured on film, and sadly, so difficult to paint in words. It is the picture of purity of the heart, of compassion and hospitality, of uncorrupted human values and trust. The picture in my mind is often associated with the warm hearth in all the Sikkimese houses. Here I am talking about the typical mountain dwellings in the higher regions of the land and not the ones in the towns with modular kitchens. Like all dwellings in higher altitudes, every house has a hearth which I would not be wrong to call it the heart of the house. It is not just a place where the meal is prepared and had, but a place where the warmth is enjoyed and shared, where all the members of the family bond, where the visitors, even strangers, are seated and treated to warm hospitality. It was my good fortune that I had the opportunity to experience the heart warming hospitality of the simple large-hearted folks of these enchanting land of the mountains. It was also providence that I met my angels in these mountains.

On my first trip to Sikkim in 2001, while on our trek from Chumthang (where the two rivers Lachen Chu and Lachung Chu meet) to Lachung, we were caught in the open by a wicked downpour that soaked us from head to toe. After trying in futility to keep ourselves dry under some thick foliage, we blew our cares in the wind and braced the chilling rain blowing hard against our faces as we headed towards the small settlement in Lachung. A woman, perhaps in her late forties, standing on her small porch waved to us and we waved backed politely, feeling much like a celebrity walking the red carpet. Then the waving got a little more frantic which stopped us on our track. We looked at each other not knowing what to expect and then on some unspoken agreement, we stepped gingerly towards the porch. Hurriedly the women waved us inside, ducking under the small door of her house. One by one we stepped inside, immediately feeling the warmth emanating from the hearth in the room. A bunch of women, all in their late forties and early fifties, were seated around the hearth, some knitting and some chopping vegetables. As I took my drenched raincoat off and put aside my dripping wet cap, the lady put a dry cloth over my head, indicating me to dry myself. I understood that she was seriously concerned that we may fall sick after walking in the rain. The concern made her to invite us inside and we were all strangers, a bunch of young men whom she has never even met or seen before. Back in the cities, this would be an unimaginable act, unthinkable and a definite no-no. But here she was, like a Godsend angel, with a bunch of complete strangers, caring over them like a concerned mother pampering over her naughty children. We were left speechless by this simple act of kindness which showed not only the large heartedness but also the simplicity and uncorrupted nature of these folks, pristine like the water that flows from their mountains. Changing into some dry clothes, we were treated to a warm Thukpa (a soupy dish with noodles, vegetables and chunks of meat) which tasted heavenly. The hearth had made us warm and cosy but it was not just the hearth that warmed us. The hospitality and care shown by the ladies really warmed our hearts. The ‘Chang’ (the local liquor made from millet, a must in high altitudes) served to us on our request, perhaps also helped a bit. This was an experience that added so much beauty to the already enchanting land. Whenever I think of Sikkim, I always remember those weather-beaten faces with a beautiful warm smile spread over them. Whoever they were, they were our angels that day. It is one picture I cannot show you sadly, but one that will remain forever etched in my mind and heart.

A couple of years later, I again had the opportunity to visit this land that I hold so dear in my heart. This time our trek took us westward from Chumthang,. Heaving our rucksack, we headed westward (from Chumthang) towards Lachen which was about 26 kilometres from Chumthang (129 kms from Gangtok). At an elevation of 2750 metres, Lachen is small settlement, smaller than Lachung, which perhaps had less than 200 houses. After a night’s halt in Lachen we pushed on further north about 30 kms to reach Thangu, a small hamlet at 13000 ft. The village is occupied only during the warm seasons but as winter approaches the villagers migrate down towards Lachen to winter out the snow season. There are only a few clusters of houses in this small hamlet. From there we pushed on further north climbing higher to a high alpine valley lodged between the mountains. Slowly the luxuriant vegetation thinned out and as we neared the valley between the mountains, it had more or less disappeared except for some remnants of high alpine plant life. It was a desert high up in the mountains but for the fact that a sparkling blue river ran right along the middle of the valley. Although there were no flora to be found at the time of our visit, the valley perhaps has some in the warmer seasons as the Yaks were known to come up to this valley to graze in the peak summer season and then migrate down slowly to warmer regions as the snow seasons approaches. The yaks would go on a yearly migration cycle coming back to same place again when it get warmer in the lower reaches. Towards the north and in direct sight were the mountains of Tibet. The mountains bore a desolate barren look devoid of any vegetation. The gentle slopes made it looked like sand dunes. Towards the south, on our right as we walked up along the valley, the mountains were rocky and snow-capped. Sitting smugly was the dome-shaped Mt. Khangchenyao (6889 metres) which we had sought to climb. It was a virgin peak (not yet scaled) which we were told that Tenzing Norgay of the Everest fame had tried to summit but failed.The terrain looked inhospitable and it was a sheer ice wall as the dome tapered down its side. For now we were just happy to glare at it appreciating its form and shape. We set up Base camp in the valley right by the river.

It was our first morning in the valley and I woke to the footfalls near my tent. I tried to lift my head up from the pillow but found myself unable to do so. My head felt heavy like as if it was tied down to a rock. A little jerk sent my head reeling in dizzying circles. I dint know what was happening. It was like as if a jack hammer had hit me. My body failed to respond to my commands. Slowly realisation dawned on me that the high Altitude sickness, as it is commonly known, that afflicts a person when the body fails to acclimatize to the high altitude conditions has taken a hold of me. How I wished that I could just lay and spend the day in my sleeping bag, but I knew I would not be able to get up if I did that. So summoning all my will against what my mind and body was telling me to do, I hauled myself out of my sleeping bag and somehow managed to get ready for the trek to Gurudongmar Lake. I wasn’t feeling quite up to it but I knew I could not give in. I had to move because the more the activity the better are your chances of getting acclimatised. So off we went and I tagged along last with the rest of the team which was quite a huge number. I felt weak, tired to my bones and wanted to turn back many a times but I trudged on, the will inside pulling me along. When the team reached the lake, I was trailing way behind. By the time I reached the lake, the team had already rested, refreshed and  was getting ready to head back. Hauling my tired self on to a big rock by the lake, I rested for a while. The placid lake of Gurudongmar, cradled by the snow capped mountains,  offered a mesmerizing view. It injected a sudden flow of life into me.

Mountain dews frozen on the blades of grass growing in the banks of Gurudongmar Lake.

As I was enjoying the view and taking some pictures with my simple film camera, which until then I dint quite have the energy to pull out from my bag, the team was up and ready to move back. Hurriedly I took a few shots and trailed last. Surprised at how the guys had made quite a good distance within such a short time, I hastened to catch up with them, foolishly exerting myself too much which left me totally exhausted. One simple rule in high altitude is never to be in a haste, it would leave you drained. By then the sun was also up shining bright in the clear blue sky and the warmth from the late afternoon rays had a numbing effect on me making me more sluggish and lethargic. I commanded myself to just put one foot ahead of the other and keep going with it. The terrain was almost completely barren except for some occasional patches of scrubs and the glare from the bright sun rays started to pain my eyes despite the shades. When I passed by a big boulder which looked real inviting for a short respite, I couldn’t help myself but hauled myself atop it and flopped down on my back. The sky was clear, which is quite a rarity in the mountains. The warm sun caressed my whole aching body and a feeling of warmth and relief ran through my being. A pleasant feeling permeated over me as I soaked in the warm sun rays. The stillness and the calmness was intoxicating. I closed my eyes.

 I could hear a small bird chirping. It was beautiful, the occasional tweets of the bird was a sweet melody sailing across the vastness of the barren land which was bathed in an all-pervading calmness. It was quiet and peaceful with no other sounds except for the tweets of a small bird. I thought to myself, paradise must be like this. Then a thought struck me, how come this small bird is here all by itself? It struck me odd that a single bird should be in a place where no other signs of life could be seen in all the miles that the eye can see. I felt a little chill and suddenly my eyes yanked open as panic shot through my whole being. The sun was already down, the sky was darkening and I had been left behind with no one noticing it. I realised I must have dozed off in the warm sunlight and the evening chill, as the sunlight faded, must have brought me back to consciousness finally awakened by the chirping of the bird around me. As I look back to that day, I can’t help but believe that the bird was there for me, chirping to wake me up from my sleep. Call it divine intervention or providence, the little bird saved my life and till today I am pretty sure it was chirping to wake me up. Was it my guardian angel? I don’t know but I would like to think so.

The barren landscape filled with rocky terrains and moraines

I quickly pulled myself up off the rock and trailed the foot steps that was still slightly visible in the fading light. Soon darkness enveloped the whole landscape changing the pleasant view into a rather sinister one with the silhouettes of the mountains against the clear sky. I was second time lucky that the sky was clear, perhaps my time had not come yet. A fog would have put me in very serious trouble. I would not have been in a position to find direction and stranded in this terrain which offered very little cover to bivouac would have proved fatal. But luck was on my side. I had the clear blue sky and the stars which was a blessing in this cold alpine region. Marking my directions with the stars and the silhouetted peaks, I pushed on towards where I thought the base camp would be. I lumbered on and on, and as I crossed over a small hump of a hillock I suddenly saw a tiny light flicker in the distance. It was the kitchen fire in the base camp. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with delight. I knew now that I was on the right course. The feeling of uncertainty and fear ebbed away from me. I knew I was safe now. I can’t even start to describe how much warmth that little light flickering miles and miles away gave me. My whole body seemed to gain a sudden energy and life-giving warmth.  I marked my directions again and pushed on, this time stepping a little lighter than before. Fear had egged me on before, making me forget my weariness, now it was the sense of feeling safe and the warmth of the kitchen fire waiting at the camp that pushed me even more. The light came off and on as I crossed over a few more small humps and then suddenly the land tapered down to a plain slope towards the camp. It was plain walk from then on and I trudged on, no more in a hurry, just bidding time for the camp to get nearer to me as my feet did it own thing as on auto mode. The last few steps were the weariest, I was totally spent. I flopped down in my bed as I entered the tent and didn’t wake up till the next morning.

The next morning, there was nothing I could do.  My eyelids refused to obey me and would not open. The sickness had completely taken hold of me. I had no will to fight it anymore. I was too tired to even open my eyes, forget about even lifting a finger. I was brought down to the hamlet of Thangu along with two other members of the expedition who also suffered the same altitude sickness. After two torturous days of lying motionless on the cold floors of an old shack, because even a slight movement of the head would split it into thousand pieces and send the whole world spinning uncontrollably, I started recovering on the third day and so also my friends. Having starved for the last few days as even a morsel that went down our throat would be thrown up immediately, I woke up on the third day hungry and ready to stuff myself. After enjoying a decent meal and the heart warming mountain hospitality of the Thangu villagers , I felt the strength returning back slowly although not fully yet. But we had no more time to lose and had to catch up with the rest of the team. Following day we packed up and set off again for the base camp and subsequently to the higher camps. Two among the three of us went on to make a summit attempt on the virgin peak of Mt. Khangchenyao standing 6889 meters tall. ( More on that to follow).

A view of the Himalayas towards Tibet from Advance Base camp

 (The pictures are a bit scratchy as these have been digitalised from film).

Sikkim (Part I), the land I fell in love with

The Yumthang Valley, Sikkim

It was love at first sight. Although it wasn’t the first time I had been to the mountains, yet when I first set foot in this small mountainous state in the Eastern Himalayan region of India, I was completely enamored, smitten by its beauty and simplicity. It was as if I’ve set foot in paradise. It was the first time I had fallen  in love with a place. I still carry with me, in my heart and recesses of my mind, the memories of this mesmerizing place.

It was in the month of April year 2000, when I first visited Sikkim. Me and my friends had caught the train to New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal and proceeded on to Siliguri from where we took the state Transport Bus to Gangtok. It had already begun to be quite hot and  humid in Siliguri and the packed transport bus wasn’t quite what you’d call an enjoyable experience. But as we climbed up from Rangpo, the sight, smell and feel of the land began to change making the journey more enjoyable. The second time round, a couple of years later, we decided to take a Tata Sumo which was much more pleasant and offered a better view of the scenery as we ascended the winding road along the Teesta river taking us to Gangtok, the capital town of Sikkim.

Gangtok which more or less translates as the ‘side of hill top’ is a scenic little town at an altitude of approximately 1500 meters above sea level, built on the slopes atop the hills of the beautiful Siwalik ranges of the Eastern Himalayas. The town has a market called the ‘Lall Bazaar’ which is the most populated area in the otherwise sparsely populated land of Sikkim. This is where we were dropped off, at a parking lot. Emerging from the parking space we came out onto the MG road which offered a wonderful window shopping experience and  delectable tastes of delightful Chinese and Tibetan cuisines in the number of restaurants lined up all along the road, starting from the budget eating joints to the more high-end restaurants. Climbing higher we came across the Palace of the Chogyal Kings which ruled Sikkim before it became a British protectorate and subsequently an Indian State. Gangtok is believed to have been a small hamlet before the Chogyal kings shifted their capital to it from Yuksom in the late 19th Century. It had become a major Buddhist pilgrimage site after the ‘Enchey monastery’ which sits atop the town was built in the mid 19th century. Subsequently after the Chogyal kings allied with the British due to rampant invasions from the neighbouring lands, Sikkim became a British protectorate and Gangtok developed into a major trade frontier for the British East India trading with Tibet and China via the Nathula pass, located in the eastern border of the State with Tibet autonomous region of China. This was the famed Old Silk route which connected Lhasa in Tibet with Bengal. The trade route was closed down after the 1962 Sino-Indian war and opened up only recently in 2006. After the British left, Sikkim was given a special protectorate status under the Indian suzerainty and finally merged in 1975, becoming the 22nd State of the Indian Union.

Gangtok. Nestled at the top of the hills of the Siwalik ranges of the Eastern Himalayas.
Gangtok, the town at the ‘side of the hill top’

A view of Gangtok from Ganesh Tok
MG Road, Gangtok.

Gangtok has all the charm of a crowded hill station. But for those wanting a taste of the higher altitudes, North Sikkim offers the best locations, a paradise for the mountain lovers. Heading north of Gangtok, about 65 kilometers of breathtaking road journey lies Mangan, the district headquarters of North Sikkim. Here you would find small resorts and hotels good for a short spell of stay.

Further north, about 40 kilometers from Mangan (95 kms from Gangtok) lies a settlement called Chungthang. It is located at an altitude of 1800 metres above sea level and situated at the confluence of the two rivers Lachen Chu and lachung Chu which feeds the Teesta river. From Chumthang, the North Sikkim highway bifurcate into two, one heading towards Lanchen and the other towards Lachung from where the two rivers flow. Here we halted a night before pushing on for the higher alpine region. Typically a hill settlement, the place has some houses with few small shops. Here you can find small vendors where one can taste the heavenly ‘Chang’, a local brew made from millet. The fermented millet is served in a big wooden cup that looks like a wooden liquor barrel with a pipe made of small bamboo poked into it. Hot water is poured over the fermented millet and kept for a few minutes before you start sucking on the bamboo pipe to taste the lovely Chang. Normally, once the first round gets over, hot water is poured again and kept while the person wanders off to do others things and returns after a while to go for the second round. For people who have very little to do on a high altitude mountain settlement, it is a very good drink not only to keep you warm but also to while away time.

My first trip took me towards the road that bifurcate on the right, heading for Lachung about 30 kilometers from Chunthang (about 125 kms from Gangtok). Lachung, a quaint little settlement at an altitude of 3000 metres, it was initially a trading post now supporting a small village. A short hike atop the hill that nestles the village is the beautiful Lachung Monastry. Paying our obeisance to the deities of the mountains and praying for our safekeeping, we departed after a cup of wonderful butter tea which is basically salted milk laced with butter, a heavenly concoction which keeps you warm and nourished. From here onwards we trekked on foot to acclimatise ourselves to the high altitudes, a ritual every mountaineer must follow before setting himself on the higher altitudes.

Waters from the mountains that feed the rivers

Yumthang Valley

Pushing on foot for about 21 kilometers from Lachung, we came to a hot spring where we had the most heavenly bath ever. Dipping ourselves in the natural hot waters with sips of Old Monk to add to the already blissful experience, we reluctantly pull ourselves out of the divine waters to slog on further into the mountains. Hardly even a kilometer had we set off that we  entered into the most beautiful place my eyes ever set upon.  My head, a little light after the blissful bath, snapped clear. It was as if I had walked right into a dream. A grazing meadow nestled between the mountains with a river cutting right through and flowing down between the mountains heading towards Lachung. On the other side of the river, a little further ahead was a carpet of Primulas that bathed the meadow in a violet hue. It was a dream and I thought to myself, heaven must be somewhere near.

The valley of Yumthang, located 3575 meters (14,000 ft)  above sea level.

A forest Inspection bungalow was housed on the left of the road while the meadow spreads on the right. It is the most wonderous feeling to wake up at the break of dawn (you can’t sleep late in a place like this) and open your eyes to the beautiful meadow spread around you. It was even more wonderful to camp right in the middle of the meadow, build a campfire and the watch the silhouettes  of the mountains while listening to the gurgling of the river flowing nearby. But the most intriguing sight was the small wooden shack standing quite aloof at the base of the mountain where no other signs of life could be seen except for the cattle that loitered around. The hints of smoke seeping out of the tin roof suggested that there were people living in it and yet there were no one to be seen.

Old man’s shack in the remote Yumthang Valley.
One fine day, me and my friends decided to pay the house a visit after our stock of whisky and rum dried up. There was no one except for a lanky old man, in his seventies I believe, living all by himself, in this valley where no human souls can be seen except the occasionally passing by tourists. He had only himself and his cattle for company, sees no human being for more than six months a year when the roads are choked off by snow during the winters, has no electricity, just his fireplace to keep him warm throughout the year and his ‘Churpi’ (Cheese made out of Yak milk) to see him through the lean seasons. As we approached the house the old man came out of the house sensing our presence and welcomed us with a bright smile. One amongst us was a Nepali and we prodded him to ask for what we were looking for. The old man signalled us to come in. It was a dark brooding room with a hearth on one side and the walls staked up with firewood that would last him a year. Seated around the fire, the old man stretched his sinewy hands towards me, pointing behind me. I turned round to a neatly staked pile of dry firewood from which I handed him some. The old man poked the ashes and added some firewood. In no time  a warm fire was kindling throwing flickering shadows across the walls. The old man looked up with a warm smile across his face which immediately thawed the chill in all of us. The grand old man opened up saying that the stuff we seek are nothing less than poison and we are too young to be dying. He then went to tell us how he survives on the milk and the ‘Churpi’ which he makes year round. Inquisitive souls that we were, we asked him about his family and why he lives here all alone. The old man answered matter of fact, without any hint of sadness, that his sons and family members are settled in the town below and that they come to meet him twice a year when the roads open up in the warm seasons, bringing him rations to see him through the year, collects all the Churpi he makes and heads back to sell it in the market. He tends to his cattle some of which were present there but most of it scattered in groups all over the mountains which he goes and checks once in a while. That itself is like our trekking expedition but all by himself. He has no fears except reverence for the almighty, laziness is not in his lexicon, survives mostly on Yak milk, takes no intoxicants at all and has more wisdom than you’d ever imagine. He is more than 70 years old but breezed passed us in the slopes of nearby Brumkhangsei peak while searching for his cattle yonder.The old man is at peace with nature, with his destiny and most of all with himself. For us it was an awakening, a fascinating fact of life we can’t even start to imagine ourselves in.
The zagged peaks of the Siwaliks
Camp in the lofty heights
The valley of Rhododendrons
Rhododendrons, the flower of the lofty mountains

to be continued……